7 Secrets to Building a Healthy Law Firm Office Culture

A healthy law firm culture makes a law firm the best version of itself. The strength and quality of that culture helps it adapt to change and continue operating during periods of uncertainty—a pandemic, for example.

Healthy law firm culture is a big deal, not only for surviving turbulent times but because it can get law firm staff to buy into the firm’s mission and weave together a stabilizing sense of community.

But everyone has a different idea about what culture is, what constitutes good culture, and how to create culture that has staying power. What’s the answer?

Spoiler alert: It’s not free pizza lunches and casual Fridays.

Those perks were compelling back when fax machines were state of the art, but a 21st century law firm sets the bar much higher. Building a healthy culture in the present tense requires a more holistic perspective on people and purpose; they are secrets hiding in plain sight.

Here’s how to find them.

What is law firm culture?

What is law firm culture?

Before we begin the search for a healthy culture, it’s important to know what the destination looks like. Law firm culture is a dynamic process that changes over time, and what was ideal 10 years ago—before remote work and artificial intelligence swept through the door—may not stand up today.

Douglas Richmond, J.D., Senior Vice President at Lockton Companies, LLC, defines it this way:

“…the system of beliefs that members share about the goals and
values that are important to them and about the behavior that is
appropriate to attain those goals and live those values

How does that definition manifest among law firms in the real world?

For insight, here’s a sample of the culture among three top law firms recognized for their superior culture, according to career intelligence platform, Vault.

O’Melveny & Myers LLPWith 10 offices in the United States, O’Melveny & Myers reportedly offers a culture that has made it a leader in diversity. The firm emphasizes wellness and prioritizes associate development.
Clifford Chance US LLPMultinational Clifford Chance LLP has developed a culture described as “…a real team attitude”. Summer outings, happy hours, and holiday parties are common in addition to celebrations for Black History Month and Pride.
Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius, LLPBiglaw that strives to “give back”. Morgan, Lewis & Brockius LLP require 20 hours of pro bono work for bonus eligibility. The company reportedly works to attract team members who seek a non-hierarchical culture with ample transparency.

Granted, these are all Biglaw firms that approach culture with Biglaw resources. What these top firms know about the importance of office culture, however, is no different from what law firms of every size know, and is backed up by research:

An organization’s culture significantly impacts an employee’s happiness.

As it turns out, what makes legal professionals who work at law firms happy isn’t much different from workers in any industry: non-judgmental colleagues, supportive leaders, good communication, shared values, and professional development.

Looks good on paper, but how do you create a great culture if you don’t already have one?

We’ll let you in on a little secret. Seven of them, actually.

How to Build a Better Company Culture

How to Build a Better Company Culture

There is no Big Bang for healthy law firm office culture. Great culture comes from a measured set of practices and principles exercised over time. They are less “secrets” than diligence that helps cultures stand out for the right reasons:

1. Gather Feedback

Start with your colleagues. Use casual conversation or anonymous surveys to find out what they have to say about the current culture; note what they say works and what needs to change. This helps build your roadmap for action.

2. Develop Core Values

Define the cultural direction you want to take and focus on core values and boundaries. Then create a list of ideas that enable team members to become champions for this culture. Use these questions to get started:

  • Decide how you want clients to perceive your firm.
  • Establish what constitutes the ideal employee experience.
  • Determine which behaviors within the culture are and are not acceptable.

3. Set an Example

Senior leaders should model the culture they want to establish. The rest of the firm’s staff members will look to them for guidance.

Rapid Legal provides user data and reports that enable you to analyze productivity, spend, and value
Rapid Legal provides user data and reports that enable you to analyze productivity, spend, and value

4. Create Emotional Infrastructure

It’s important to create strong emotional ties among your law firm’s team members. It is also important to create a positive bond between team members and the law firm itself. Offer opportunities for employees to strengthen these connections.

5. Cultivate Trust

It’s not enough to teach your firm’s staff members how to do their jobs. A healthy law firm culture should work toward trusting staff members to make decisions. Give them opportunities to take the right actions and build their decision-making experience.

6. Build Resilience

The work of legal professionals is inherently stressful. One way to keep stress from becoming overwhelming is to offer a framework for resilience. This can include providing resources, relationships, and emotional support that help staff members recover from stressful events such as conflict, failure, or changes in responsibility.

You may also want to coach team members on ways to keep up with the demanding pace of the law firm environment. These two resources offer excellent insights to manage workloads and constant waves of information:

7. Embrace Flexibility

The legal profession historically has resisted change. Unfortunately, clinging to a “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset fosters rigidity and stifles innovation: an invitation to catastrophe.

To create a healthy office culture in the 21st century, law firms must become flexible.

Firms of any size can improve flexibility by being open to hybrid or remote work arrangements, compressed workweeks, and flexible start and end times.

Why are these work models so important for building a healthy culture (and company)?

Because organizations that offer some form of remote work enjoy a 25% lower employee turnover rate compared to those that do not.

Flexibility does more than just reduce turnover; it also lowers burnout, helps employees support their families, enhances productivity, and boosts morale.

Remote Work is Still a Fave

After the COVID-19 public health emergency ended in in 2023

“…only 7% of associates/support staff
have returned full time to their offices.”

—Law.com: How Hybrid Work Forever Transformed the Legal Profession (survey conducted July 21st-August 14th, 2023

What Separates Firms from Their Culture Goal?

What Separates Firms from Their Culture Goal?

The barriers law firms face in building a healthy office culture are not unlike the barriers most organizations face. Let’s look at four of the common barriers that stand between a law firm and its culture goals, and how to overcome them.

• Iffy Leadership

When the firm’s senior leaders and middle managers don’t adhere to their brand values, it won’t be long before lawyers and non-lawyers do the same.
Inconsistency cultivates distrust and cynicism among the firm’s staff, especially if their leaders appear to be exempt from the rules.

For example, no cell phones in the office means no cell phones for everyone. If legal assistants need to be at their desks filling court documents by 8:30 a.m., the rainmakers should be at their desks as well.

Keeping the same standards for all employees will cultivate a healthy culture that builds trust, promotes equality, and reinforces brand values.

• Sideways energy

Sideways energy refers to energy that is unfocused, misdirected, and otherwise wasted. It may manifest as employee drama, siloing, or gaps in trust, and is notorious for draining productivity.

Sideways energy can quickly turn good culture bad.

You may not be able to eradicate sideways energy completely, but you can clip its wings by implementing organizational systems that ensure the right people are hired, developed, and supported in ways that align with brand values.

• Failure to Collaborate

Even in the best collaborative environments, silos may pop up like cliquey little mushrooms. Silos persist because lawyers and non-lawyers tend to place their primary focus on their group or departmental tasks, with only a few senior leaders seeing the big picture.

As silos become more entrenched, trust diminishes. Communication, collaboration, and partnership soon follow suit.

But siloing may not be so much a problem to solve as a situation to manage.

To mitigate the impact of silos, implement intentional meetings and management processes that address company culture proactively. This will help staff members cultivate a broader perspective about the firm for themselves, and improve the understanding they have about how their roles and functions contribute to the overall mission.

If You Build It, They Will Come

If You Build It, They Will Come

You now have seven powerful tools to build the kind of workplace that inspires you, welcomes you, and sends you home at the end of the day feeling like it brought out the best.

The results you want may not happen overnight, but building this foundation now means your firm will be better prepared for long-term success once all the elements come together.

As you plan your culture, consider whether your litigation support service provider aligns with the vision you have. Can they be a strategic partner that will help you create positive change from the inside?

If that doesn’t sound like your current provider, it’s time to think about finding one that does. Schedule a call or book a demo now to speak with a Rapid Legal account manager, and find out how we can help make your law firm the best version of itself through innovation and superior performance.